Urban Renewal

Between 1953 and 1967, urban renewal and highway projects worked to completely transform Detroit’s racial and geographic makeup. Before 1940, black Detroiters were concentrated on the East Side, primarily in Black Bottom and the neighborhood’s business district, Paradise Valley. By the 1960s, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were gone, and the largest numbers of black Detroiters lived on the West Side, although significant numbers still lived on the East Side. These changes were driven by so called “slum clearance” of black neighborhoods and the construction of freeways right through black neighborhoods. The displacement of black Detroiters during this period was so grand, Detroit’s Urban League declared that, “No single governmental activity has done more to disperse, disorganize, and discourage neighborhood cohesion than has urban redevelopment.”   
 
Because very little new housing was built in Detroit from the 1930s-1950s, by the 1950s much of Detroit’s inner city was old and decaying. As part of a plan to build new housing on Detroit’s near East Side and create economic development projects on the Near West Side, the city began to clear land in Black Bottom on the city’s lower East Side. Planners in Detroit were explicit about starting this process on the Lower East Side because they believed that in black communities, “There may be less likelihood of organized opposition,” and initially, planners’ assumptions proved to be correct.

Black Detroiters did not initially resist these clearance projects because they assumed that dilapidated housing would be cleared for new public housing, as was the custom in Detroit. However, because land in Detroit’s inner city was priced higher than land in the suburbs and outer areas, realtors and Mayor Cobo agreed that urban renewal land should be replaced by housing for middle class and wealthy people. Out of the price range of most black Detroiters, this new housing resulted in the practical exclusion of black residents.

Fully aware that racial discrimination in housing meant that very few vacant apartments existed outside already black neighborhoods, the Detroit Housing Commission proceeded to clear out several hundred black Detroiters. Sending letters telling them to move without also informing that it was the city’s responsibility to help them find housing, most black families moved into older buildings on the West Side, doubling and tripling up with other families in already crowded houses. Some relocated with the assistance of the city to apartments and houses that, according to the city, had plumbing beyond repair.

After documenting the relocation process, the Detroit Urban League reported that many black Detroiters now lived in squalor as bad if not worse than the slums of Black Bottom, living in apartments with cracked walls, bad plumbing, and poor installation. The Urban League also warned that coming expressway construction would displace an additional 9,000 black families who would likely face similarly bad conditions after relocating.

Expressway construction completely destroyed Hastings Street, the commercial center of Black Bottom, also known as Paradise Valley. Not only eliminating jazz clubs, churches, and other important cultural institutions, the destruction of Paradise Valley destroyed the sense of community that had existed amongst black Detroiters.
Small black owned businesses on and near Hastings Street were more than just a place to buy things. Owners often knew their customers very well, talking with them about their problems, sometimes supervising children, and even providing loans to some. Had these businesses been given relocation money that covered their costs, they may have been able to move with residents and maintain some sense of community. However, as one business owner told researchers, “I was not paid enough to start over into anything. If you wish to pass any information on you may say I feel very bitter over the way people in general were treated. It will not help to say anymore. I tried for many years and many meetings with people that lived in the area to get a better consideration. We did not get it.”

Instead of stores that built community, poor blacks new to west side neighborhoods consistently complained of being charged too much by white storeowners. Due to a contraction in the auto industry’s need for labor throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, unemployment was high in Detroit and black residents often relied on credit given to them by storeowners to get by. Many residents remember being ripped off by this credit system. For example, one resident remembered his mother receiving credit at a furniture store where the quality of merchandise was visibly poor. Because the store gave credit, his mother took what she could get and, as residents explained it, “the owners felt that the neighborhood was ripe for what they could afford so they priced accordingly.” Some storeowners went so far as to get customers drunk so that they would agree to high interest rates on big-ticket items. Other blacks found that white storeowners were willing to teach black residents what they knew about business, including how to cheat people with credit.

In this new environment, black Detroiters often lamented the loss of community that existed on Hastings Street and in Black Bottom. Although Marsha Mickens was too young to have experienced the cultural center, listening to her father who owned a record store on Hastings Street, she learned “that a way of life had been totally destroyed by the Chrysler Freeway.” Helen Kelly, who was forced to move from Hastings Street due to expressway construction said, “The expressway divided the community. When you could walk cross the street and talk to your neighbor, it’s no longer there. You got to go across the bridge, and after you go cross that bridge you ain’t going to find that same neighbor because that space, street, is gone—all those houses in that neighborhood is gone.”

After experiencing this displacement from Black Bottom, black Detroiters started calling urban renewal “Negro removal,” and began to organize against it. GOAL (Group on Advanced Leadership) filed a lawsuit against the city to stop the construction of a medical center in what had been Black Bottom. In a coalition with the Urban League and black ministers, GOAL demanded that no black churches be torn down, that displaced residents and businesses be given financial assistance to return, and that the hospitals commit to ending racial discrimination in hiring.

Although the coalition was unable to get the city to agree to build low-income housing, the city did agree to protect black churches from demolition and some of these churches built their own low-income housing in the area. The coalition also succeeded in getting a pledge of non-discrimination from the hospitals, which resulted in better treatment for black patients and increased employment of black doctors, nurses, and orderlies.

References

Angela Dillard, Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2009

Max Herman, Summer of Rage: An Oral History of the 1967 Newark and Detroit Riots, New York Peter Lang, 2013

June Manning Thomas, Race and Redevelopment: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2013

Elaine Latzman Moon, Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1994

Interview with Helen Kelly, conducted by Blackside, Inc., June 9, 1989

Clips from 2018 interviews with Detroit attorney Elliott Hall and former City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, in which they explain how freeway construction and urban renewal programs have impacted the city of Detroit. –Videography: 248 Pencils

Houses in Black Bottom (1950)

Houses in Black Bottom (1950)

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Neighbors on Mullet St. in 1950 gather on their front porches in Black Bottom, a neighborhood that was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the Chrysler Freeway and the Detroit Medical Center. –Credit: Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Clip from a 2018 interview with former City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, in which she describes the Black communities that were destroyed when freeways were built through the heart of Detroit. –Videography: 248 Pencils

Chrysler Freeway Construction Project

Chrysler Freeway Construction Project

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A view of the Chrysler Freeway construction project in Detroit, looking east from the roof of the City-County Building (undated). –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Clip from a 1989 interview with Detroit resident Helen Kelly, in which she describes the impacts that urban renewal and highway construction had on the city’s Black community.–Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Stop the Biggest Land Swindle in History

Stop the Biggest Land Swindle in History

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In 1965, the Reverend Albert B. Cleage, Jr. ran for Detroit’s Common Council. He campaigned on a promise to fight police brutality and stop the destruction of the inner-city through urban renewal. “Stop the Biggest Land Swindle in History. Stop the Destruction of the ‘Inner-City.'” –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Clip from a 1989 interview with Ed Vaughn, in which he discusses urban renewal and highway construction in Detroit, and community resistance in the 1960s.–Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Explore The Archives

Map of Detroit Expressways (1959)

Map of Detroit Expressways (1959)

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A map of the Detroit expressway system as featured in the souvenir pamphlet presented to attendees of the ground breaking ceremony for the Walter P. Chrysler Expressway (1959).–Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Corner of Hastings St and Mack Ave (1950s)

Corner of Hastings St and Mack Ave (1950s)

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A street view of retail stores along Hastings Street at the intersection of Mack Ave. This neighborhood was later destroyed to build the Detroit Medical Center. For more streetscapes of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in the 1950s-60s, see the collection “Streetscapes and Storefronts: City Life in 1960’s Detroit”: http://reuther.wayne.edu/image/tid/1720 –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Central Park Plaza Brochure (1962)

Central Park Plaza Brochure (1962)

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Front cover of a brochure for Central Park Plaza. Designed by the architectural firm of Giffels and Rosetti, Central Park Plaza offered “every convenience for easier, finer living.” The majority of residents displaced by Central Park Plaza’s construction could not afford to move into the apartment complex. Situated near the Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park, the apartments were built in 1963 and still house Detroit residents today. c. 1962. –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Watch this short documentary, “The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Black Bottom,” to learn more about the city’s iconic Black Bottom neighborhood before most of it was leveled for urban renewal and highway projects. —Credit: City of Detroit
Children in Black Bottom (1930s-40s)

Children in Black Bottom (1930s-40s)

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A group of children pose in front of a store in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. For more portraits from Black Bottom, see the Edward Stanton Collection: http://reuther.wayne.edu/image/tid/1983 — Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Detroit native Horace Sheffield describes growing up in the African American community on the West Side of Detroit in the 1920s-1930s.–Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Detroit resident Shelton Tappes describes the neighborhood he grew up in during the 1920s-1930s before it was destroyed by highway construction in the 1950s.–Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Gratiot Redevelopment Project Report (1964) 2

Gratiot Redevelopment Project Report (1964) 2

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Final report of the Gratiot Redevelopment Project, an urban renewal program that cleared 129 acres of land, including the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley areas, displacing predominantly Black families and businesses. –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Urban Renewal

"Court Action To Test Urban Renewal"

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“Court Action To Test Urban Renewal: Can They ‘Plan’ the Negro out of the Fabulous ‘New Inner City’?” by Atty. Henry Cleage, Editor. Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 5, January 29, 1962. –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 7, February 12, 1962

Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 7, February 12, 1962

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“Negro Churches Can Not Be Forced Out of Medical Center,” Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 7, February 12, 1962. –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Urban Renewal

"Segregated Schools and Urban Renewal … A Program of Negro Containment," Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 13, March 26, 1962

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“Segregated Schools and Urban Renewal … A Program of Negro Containment,” Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 13, March 26, 1962. –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
The Population Revolution in Detroit

The Population Revolution in Detroit

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In February 1963, the Institute for Regional and Urban Studies at Wayne State University published The Population Revolution in Detroit. –Credit: University Archives, Wayne State University.
Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 7, February 12, 1962

Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 7, February 12, 1962

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Investigating school segregation in the Illustrated News, Vol. 2, No. 6, February 5, 1962. –Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University